Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter and First Female Paleontologist.

I present a woman who was the first and best in her field. Mary Anning, Fossil Hunter, Geologist, Naturalist. She provided rare fossils to the great minds of her day, and was the first person to discover the ichthyosaur and the plesiosaur.

Mary Anning's Window

The president of the Geological Society, Henry De la Beche, wrote the first eulogy ever written for a woman by the Society. He read and published the eulogy in the Society’s quarterly transactions. This was an honor normally only given to fellows of the society and they didn’t began admitting women until 1904 [5]. The eulogy began:

“I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without advertising to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians, and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis …” [5]

Mary Anning has been credited with the first discovery of ichthyosaur fossils which she found when she was 10 or 12 years old. However, her most important find was the discovery of the first plesiosaur. This discovery allowed Mary to become a legitimate and respected fossilists in the eyes of the scientific community[1].

Still, Mary has not been credited for the majority of finds that she made.  Unfortunately, this lead to the scientific community to forget about her and her family until recently [1].  Several authors have recently published books about Mary Anning.  The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman whose Discoveries Changed the World by  Shelley Emling, and Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier are among the most recent.

Mary’s gender and her lack of social status also contributed to her lack of recognition. Many scientists of the day could not believe that a woman of low status and no formal education could have the knowledge and skills that she did [1]. In 1824, Lady Harriet Sivester, wrote in her diary after visiting Mary Anning:

“. . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom [1].”

High praise, but “divine favor” is used to explain how such a woman could possibly be so knowledgeable. Taking away from her hard work and hard won knowledge and skill.

In 2005, Mary Anning was awarded two honors, she was named by the Royal Society as “the third most influential female scientist in British history.” They created a list named “The Royal Society’s list of the top ten women in British history who have had the most influence on science” to celebrate the Society’s 350th anniversary and its commitment to the advancement of women in science [2]. The Society’s mentions:

 “Anning’s gender and social class prevented her from fully participating in the scientific community of early 19th century Britain, and she did not always receive full credit for her contributions… Her observations also played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilized faeces.” [2]

Also she was made by the Natural History Museum an added personality for reenactment, alongside scientists such as Carl LinnaeusDorothea Bate, and William Smith [4].

Mary’s discoveries became key pieces of evidence for a number of important developing ideas such as Extinction which was not thought possible until the early 1820’s. Before then, the scientific community believed that animals did not become extinct. Instead they believed that unseen forms of life were merely still living somewhere in an unexplored region of the earth. Mary’s numerous discoveries of strange creatures helped this idea to fall to the wayside [6].

The discovery of such creatures as the ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaur, along with the first dinosaur fossils discovered by Gideon Mantell and William Buckland, showed that creatures very different from those living today had indeed lived and died. These fossils also helped support the idea that there had been an “Age of Reptiles” when reptiles had been the dominate form of animal life [6].

Mary’s discoveries played a key role in the development of Geohistorical Analysis within geology. Geohistorical Analysis sought to understand the history of the earth by using evidence from fossils to reconstruct extinct organisms and the environments they lived in; this discipline eventually came to be called Paleontology [6].

Mary Anning contributed much in her short life, and she defiantly left her mark on the world. She has been called the First Paleontologist and the Heroine of Lyme Regis. She made her mark on the world and helped develop revolutionary ideas. It’s time she comes out of the shadows and allowed the recognition she deserves.

For more in this series check out Mother’s of the Field.

References

[1] Mary Anning (1799-1847).  http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/anning.html UC Berkly. Accessed Jan 2, 2012.

[2] 2003 Hudston, Jonathan.

“Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning acclaimed as top British scientist – and secret inspiration for John Fowles.” Real West Dorset Blog. http://www.realwestdorset.co.uk/wordpress/03/2010/lyme-regis-fossil-hunter-mary-anning-acclaimed-influential-woman-scientist-royal-society-secret-inspiration-john-fowles-french-lieutenants-woman/ Accessed Jan 2, 2012.

[3] 2001 McGowan, Christopher

The Dragon Seekers, Persus Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7382-0282-2

[4] 2005. National History Museum.

Marry Anning Sessions. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/education/school-activities/gallery-characters/mary-anning-session/index.html. Accessed Jan 2, 2012.

[5] 1995 Torrens, Hugh

“Mary Anning (1799–1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew'”, The British Journal for the History of Science 25 (3): 257–284,JSTOR 4027645

[6] 2009 Emling, Shelley

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman whose Discoveries Changed the World, Palgrove Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-230-61156-6-

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